In the wake of two controversial high bail cases, Ventura County defense lawyers say they are stepping up their scrutiny of Superior Court judges to make sure suspects accused of crimes are not being jailed unfairly.
In the last six months, a state appeals court twice lowered bail for defendants after concluding that a Ventura County judge abused his discretion by setting bail five and 10 times higher than recommended amounts.
The defendants had no prior criminal records. Their alleged crimes did not involve weapons or recent threats to victims. But prosecutors argued that the defendants posed a risk to public safety, and their requests for hefty bail increases were granted.
Defense attorneys say judges routinely use public safety as a basis for setting high bail in felony cases, a practice that lawyers fear undermines constitutional protections against punishing defendants before they have been found guilty.
"My experience is there is not enough discretion in deciding who presents an actual threat," Deputy Public Defender Christina Briles said.
County public defenders now say they will immediately appeal the next time a judge deviates from the county's bail schedule--set by local judges themselves--without clear evidence of a suspect's danger potential.
"We are ready to go," Chief Deputy Public Defender Michael McMahon said. "We can be back before the Court of Appeal within 24 hours."
Appellate courts are typically hesitant to interfere with the setting of bail. But that changed in Ventura County in December with the case of accused rapist Andrew Luster.
The great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor, Luster, 36, had been held in lieu of $10 million--10 times higher than the bail schedule--on charges that he drugged and sexually assaulted three women at his Mussel Shoals beach house.
Prosecutors had sought a bail increase, saying Luster posed a flight risk and a danger to women. The request was granted by Superior Court Judge Arturo Gutierrez, a former public defender who presides over the arraignment court.
1st Reversals in 18 Years
Luster's lawyers filed a writ to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura. There, prosecutors again argued that Luster was a dangerous multimillionaire with the financial means to leave the country. But the justices weren't swayed.
"In our collective 100-plus years of legal experience, we have never seen such a bail setting," Justice Kenneth Yegan wrote in an opinion with concurring Justices Arthur Gilbert and Steven Perren. "There may be instances where $10 million would be appropriate. This is not one of them."
The ruling marked the first time in at least 18 years that the court had reversed a judge's decision setting bail. Six months later, it happened again.
This time, the justices concluded that Gutierrez abused discretion by setting bail at five times higher than the bail schedule for Cheryl Christie, ex-wife of Hells Angels leader George Christie Jr., who is charged in a broad drug-and-racketeering case.
Prosecutors say Cheryl Christie was a co-conspirator in a narcotics ring that sold drugs to high school students in Ventura and Ojai. They argued that she had close ties to the Hells Angels and posed a danger to the community.
In granting the bail increase, Gutierrez said: "I am going to protect the high school kids [and] leave bail as it is set at a half-million dollars." He could not be reached last week for further comment.
Cheryl Christie's bail was subsequently reduced to $100,000. She was released from custody last week.
McMahon filed a brief in the Christie case, arguing that the county prosecutors frequently urge judges to set high bail in the name of public safety, without backing up their claims.
"The prosecutors," McMahon said in an interview last week, "invoke this mantra of public safety without any specifics."
Not true, prosecutors say.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Redmond, who supervises the county's felony unit, acknowledged that prosecutors aggressively seek bail increases in serious criminal cases in which the release of a defendant would pose a danger to the community.
But he said such requests are not commonplace and are not handled lightly.
"In the vast majority of cases, we follow the established bail schedule," Redmond said. "But there are those circumstances--gang cases, failures to appear--that make us go beyond that established schedule."
In those instances, he said, prosecutors must submit sworn declarations from law enforcement officers explaining why the standard bail amount is insufficient.
"We can't just stroll into court and say, 'Hey, Your Honor, can you set bail higher?' It is not a barter system," Redmond said. "It requires some basis for us to request an increase in the bail schedule."
The schedule is a 30-page list of offenses--felonies, misdemeanors, vehicle and health code violations--with corresponding monetary amounts that judges use as a baseline for setting bail.
Bail schedules vary from county to county. They are set by judges and reviewed annually.
In recent years, Ventura County judges have increased the schedule amounts for certain violent crimes, aligning themselves with the toughest law-and-order counties in Southern California.
The cost of getting out of jail on a noncapital murder charge increased from $250,000 to $500,000 in 1999. Bail for a rape charge rose from $50,000 to $100,000.
This year, the judges hiked bail from $20,000 to $100,000 for bringing a firearm onto school grounds--10 times higher than Los Angeles County's bail schedule. And bail for gang activity rose from $20,000 to $100,000.
"We're generally on the higher end of average," said Ventura County Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O'Neill Jr., chairman of the bail committee.
"We are very concerned about public safety issues and mindful of that when we set bail," O'Neill said. "We are also mindful of the presumption of innocence. So we try to be reasonable."
Under California law, judges setting bail must take into consideration the protection of the public, the seriousness of the charges, any previous criminal history and the probability of the defendant returning to court. The law states that "public safety shall be the primary consideration."
Protecting women like Vicki Shade is why.
Shade, 37, was stabbed to death by her estranged boyfriend, Roland Sheehan, a month after he was released on bail. Sheehan had made repeated threats to kill the Ventura hairstylist and was arrested on suspicion of stalking her.
While out on bail, he broke into Shade's home and held her at knifepoint during a nine-hour standoff with police before killing her. SWAT officers responded by shooting Sheehan, who died at the scene.
Judges OK Increases for Certain Crimes
Afterward, county judges moved swiftly to approve a fivefold increase in bail for stalking, from $20,000 to $100,000. They also increased bail on charges of spousal rape, domestic battery and violating a restraining order. They adopted a rule in which bail for certain crimes is doubled if the suspect has a prior domestic violence conviction.
Some defense lawyers worry that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of public safety, thereby compromising the rights of the accused.
"What you wind up doing is punishing people before you find out whether they've done something wrong," said Los Angeles attorney Joel Isaacson, who represents Luster.
Isaacson, who has handled criminal cases in federal and state courts for 30 years, said he had never encountered bail as high as that for his client.
Courts have other options to ensure a defendant's appearance in court, such as house arrest or electronic monitoring bracelets, he said. But with Luster, he said, the hysteria whipped up at the time of filing of charges--including press reports about the search for additional victims--created an atmosphere that led to high bail.
Ventura criminal defense attorney Victor Salas, who fought for a bail reduction for Cheryl Christie, sees a direct connection between high-profile cases and high bail.
"As soon as those cameras start rolling, and the reporters are sitting there in the front row," Salas said, "judges feel the pressure."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Ventura County judges in recent years have increased the bail schedule for certain crimes. This year, they increased bail for defendants accused of gang activity, selling drugs to minors and bringing firearms onto school grounds. This is a partial list of changes to the bail schedule.
Violations 1998 2001 Murder $250,000 $500,000 Rape $50,000 $100,000 Drug sales to minor $50,000 $100,000 Gang activity $20,000 $100,000 Stalking $20,000 $100,000 Firearm on school grounds $20,000 $100,000 Violation of protective order * $5,000 $10,000 Domestic battery * $2,500 $5,000
* Bail is doubled for suspects with a previous domestic-violence conviction.
Source: Ventura County Superior Court